NASA Pledges To Rebalance Technology Development Efforts

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WASHINGTON — Amid criticism that NASA has strayed from its research and development roots in recent years, a senior agency official told a congressional panel that NASA would be changing the way it invests in advanced technologies.

“Earlier this year we recognized that our investments in technology have changed. They’ve changed their focus to a more near-term focus as opposed to a longer-term focus for a variety of reasons,” NASA Associate Administrator Chris Scolese told the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee Oct. 22. “So we asked a team to go off and look at what we could do … You can expect to see some changes in how NASA does technology in the future.”

Scolese, NASA’s third in command, did not offer many specifics, but he told the smattering of lawmakers present for a hearing on strengthening NASA’s technology development programs that technologies needed for the near- and mid-term would continue to be developed within the agency’s mission directorates.

He noted for example that NASA’s Science Mission Directorate invests 10 percent of its roughly $4.5 billion annual budget on technology development efforts geared toward producing the instruments and other capabilities that will be needed for missions planned for the decade ahead.

When it comes to technologies where the potential payoff is longer term, Scolese said the agency tends to concentrate its resources on “cross-cutting” technologies of benefit to more than one of the agency’s mission directorates.

“Those don’t tend to fit well within a mission directorate,” he said. “If we went off to do those, we would look at a more coordinated effort across our directorates.”

Scolese shared the witness table with two men who helped lead separate National Research Council studies that reached similar conclusions about the need to revitalize NASA’s technology development efforts.

Robert Braun, director of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Space Systems Design Laboratory, co-chaired a review released this summer that called for re-establishing the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts (NIAC).

NIAC was established in 1998 to incubate revolutionary space and aeronautics concepts aimed at impacting NASA missions 10 years to 20 years in the future. NASA spent about $4 million a year on NIAC and funded more than 150 studies before shutting the institute down in 2007.

Braun said NASA and the nation would be well served by creating an “NIAC 2,” with some minor changes from the original, and giving it at least $10 million a year to invest in concepts with potentially game-changing applications.

“Our nation needs to dream big, and large goals are exactly what our nation has come to expect of NASA,” Braun testified.

Raymond Colladay, the former Lockheed Martin Space Systems president who co-chaired the National Research Council’s recent “Committee on the Rationale and Goals of the U.S. Civil Space Program,” told lawmakers that NASA’s current technology investments are driven by pressing needs and tend to shortchange projects with longer-term payoff.

Colladay said budget pressures and institutional priorities have driven NASA to largely abandon its role in supporting a broad portfolio of civil space applications, allowing its space technology base to erode.

To remedy this situation, Colladay said, NASA should establish an advanced technology development program whose top manager reports directly to the NASA administrator.

He said the new organization should be loosely modeled after the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and should seek to develop technologies not just useful to NASA but to other civilian agencies and the private sector.

Scolese said that when it comes to deciding which technologies to develop, NASA generally tries to look no further out than a couple of decades.

“NASA believes these early technology activities should be long enough to allow for revolutionary impact yet not too long as to mask clear applicability to NASA or national needs, or in the 10 to 20 year timeframe” he said.

Scolese also testified that even without a dedicated long-term technology development program, NASA continues to invest in a limited number of “game-changing” technologies through its Innovative Partnerships program and within the agency’s mission and engineering organizations. He cited as two examples investments in optical communications and large pressurized composite structures.

“I suspect that there may not be a one-size-fits all organizational structure for technology development at NASA,” said Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), the space and aeronautics subcommittee chairwoman. “But it’s not just a question of money or how the organizational deck chairs are arranged — NASA has to be smart and opportunistic in seeking out ways to get its technologies out to the private sector and to other potential government users.”